The ladder for the rest of us.

Homily 590 – 4 GL
Holy Transfiguration, Ames, Iowa
April 14, 2024
Epistle:  (314) Hebrews 6:13-20 and (229) Ephesians 5:9-19
Gospel:  (40) Mark 9:17-31 and (10) Matthew 4:25-5:12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

This Sunday we recall St. John of the Ladder – Climacus.  This Sunday is one that I honestly have mixed emotions about.  I suppose I shouldn’t admit that.  But it does.

This is not about St. John.  It is about his writing, the Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Many, many people ask about this work every year about this time.  In the monasteries, the Ladder is read during Great Lent, typically at mealtime, which for monks is generally once a day, in the late afternoon.

When we first start to engage with the text of the Ladder, the thing that we have to realize is that we are undertaking a monastic struggle.  That is what gives me pause in recognizing the Ladder as useful for those of us outside the monastery.

Now, in looking at the text, let’s examine a bit of why the Ladder is what it is.  First, St. John Climacus himself.  St. John was the abbot, the spiritual leader, of the Monastery of St. Catherine’s in Sinai, at the base of Mount Sinai.  He lived in the sixth and seventh centuries, and departed this life in 649 AD at the age of 70.

To give a bit of perspective, Muhammad the prophet of Islam was born in 570 AD and died in 632 AD.  It is very likely that it was St. John himself that received the Covenant of Muhammad, called the Ashtiname (Ash-tee-nah-may), which guaranteed respect and protection for followers of Jesus by those who follow Islam.

So, St. John was a renowned monastic father and leader.  He wrote the text at the request of another monastic abbot and leader, John, the Abbot of the Raithu monastery, also on the Sinai Peninsula, on the shore of the Red Sea.  John was the disciple of St. John, and the Ladder was intended as the organizing principles for the spiritual life of the monastery at Raithu.

With that background, St. John gives us 30 rungs on this Ladder to heaven.  One for each year of the Lord’s life, as our Lord prepared for public ministry.  Now, in general, these rungs of the ladder, these steps to heaven, are designed to be ascended in order.  St. John starts with the very basics, and then continues upward, with each step building on the one before it.

So, the first step – the very first step – is leaving the world.

Let that sink in for a moment.  That’s the first step of the ladder.  And if we aren’t willing to leave the world, or unable to leave the world, then the rest of the text is somewhat irrelevant for us.

The first four steps, in fact, are those of leaving the world, then detaching from the world, being exiled, and being in obedience.  Meaning that not only do we leave the world, but we cease to consider it even exists.  There are no exceptions to this – not for family, not for anything.  As for the world, we no longer exist, and the world no longer exists for us.  Then, we place ourselves in obedience to an abbot or elder.  Completely.

No arguing, or debating, or discussing.  That is the monastic beginning.  Not the end, the beginning.  For only when we have detached completely from the world and given ourselves over to a spiritual master to rule over us, can the monk begin to work on their interior life.  The thoughts and desires and emotions that rule us.

And the first rungs of the ladder are the easy ones.  But St. John warns us they come with untold suffering.  Think of detaching from something that is intimately connected to us.  We heard the story of St. Alexis about a month ago.  St. Alexis had a wonderful, pious life.

But he tore himself from that family and the brand new bride he had married, and left them, and when he returned, he lived with them and they didn’t know it was him until after his death.  He heard his wife sobbing over his absence.

That is the suffering that St. John is warning about.  It is suffering worse than the death of a spouse or a child or a parent.

And again – that is the beginning.

So, what can we do, who remain in the world?  What can we learn from the monastic pursuit of perfection that the Church wants us to know during this time?

We can, and must, replicate some aspects of what St. John describes.  The overall objective is the voluntary crucifixion of the ego.  That is what the monk seeks.  That is what we need to seek.  It is actually easier for us than for the monk who lives largely outside the world.

What we do is this:  We remember that we are sinners, the first of sinners as the prayers say, and we remember that we are in no position to judge anyone.  We obey the fasts of the Church, and detach from our material wealth, practicing radical generosity, even if we have nothing.  We share what we have with everyone, regardless of if we determine them worthy of help or not.

We save for the times when we don’t have work, just as the farmer stores up grains for the season when grain doesn’t grow.  But when we have enough, we share.  We give of our excess.

We don’t expect nor pursue luxury and comfort.  We pursue peace and harmony with everyone we encounter.  We don’t live our Christianity in isolation, but rather we see everyone we meet as better than us, more of an icon of God than we are.

We get comfortable with the idea that we don’t have any control over the world, or even ourselves, and we place ourselves in the dominion of the Church’s discipline.  By this we learn not only that there is much we can live without, but we also learn the really important aspects of life.

Relationships, peace, love, harmony.  These are to be prized more than silver or gold or possessions.  What we want when we die is not the most stuff, or the most wealth.  We want people who love us, and miss us, and will pray for us.

We must keep our eye on the prize.  The prize which is resurrecting, everlasting life, togetherness, and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.